The unusually ‘large’ air strike run by Tupolev Tu-22M-3 Backfires of the VKS via the airspace of Belarus on north-western Ukraine, on Jun. 25, 2022, surprised a few, attracted lots of attention, depressed some, and imposed quite a few questions.
Although its targets — and, indeed: aims — remain unclear, the unusually ‘large’ air strike run by Tupolev Tu-22M-3 bombers of the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) via the airspace of Belarus on north-western Ukraine, on Jun. 25, 2022, surprised a few, attracted lots of attention, depressed some, and imposed quite a few questions. Thus, have sat down and wrote up different of related issues coming to my mind. Sure, the mass of this is written ‘from memory’, quite a lot is ‘history’, and one or another detail might be ‘slightly off’. I’m confident about the quality of the following story ‘in total’, though.
Tu-22K and Kh-22
The Tupolev Tu-22 (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘Blinder’) was a supersonic, medium bomber developed in the late 1950s. The jet was about 42m long, weighting up to 92,000kg, and had a max speed of about 1,500km/h. Original variant was equipped with an optical bombing sight and could deploy conventional, free-fall/dumb bombs only. Yes, it was fast, capable of reaching speeds of Mach 1.5, and it possessed a useful operational range (about 2,000km, although you’re going to find much higher figures in usual sources of reference). However, I do not know anybody honestly liking to service or operate that jet: it was awfully hard to maintain and operate, heavy on controls, had a landing speed higher than that of the Space Shuttle, plus those downward-firing ejection seats that cost so many of its three-man-crews the life…
What a surprise then, it proved unpopular in service and, as air defences of the late 1950s and early 1960s became ever more efficient, there was a question of how to convert the Tu-22 into an effective weapons system?
At the time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was facing many threats. One of these were carrier battle groups (CVBGs; nowadays ‘carrier strike groups’) of the US Navy (USN), equipped with bombers armed with nuclear bombs. When considering this threat, the Soviets studied combat experiences from the Pacific during the Second World War. Most important conclusion was that USN’s CVBGs were heavily protected, and the only way to penetrate their defences was by the means of very fast, guided missiles, launched from 400–500km away from the target. Precision was not as important because the principal warhead of the early 1960s was a nuke: this made sure that, even if just one missile got through, and then missed by, say, 1,500–3,000 metres, the strike would still cause ‘at least enough’ damage.
Thus, the solution for Tu-22 became the installation of the Kh-22 missile (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘AS-4 Kitchen’).
Kompleks-22, Take 1
There were something like ‘two generations’ of the Kh-22, both of which had their dimensions in common: about 11,5m long, almost 6,000kg heavy. Centerpiece was a liquid-powered motor (fuel was the highly-toxic IRFNA), that could accelerate the missile to the speed of Mach 1–2+, while bringing it over a range of 400–500km. A single Kh-22 was carried, semi-recessed, under the centerline of the Tu-22K bomber: this was the version equipped with the Leninets radar, necessary to guide the Kh-22. All together was named the Kompleks-22.
Action and Reaction…
Now, this early Kh-22 was quite a primitive weapon, the homing head of which required a target with a radar cross section of about 600 square metres: something really big — like an aircraft carrier, for example. But, it was a powerful weapon capable of reaching its maximum range in a matter of ‘few minutes’. Unsurprisingly, the US Navy took the threat of the Kompleks-22 very seriously and through the mid-1960s launched the research and development of not just one, but multiple defence systems. The results were massive — especially in monetary means — but several of these have entered service during the mid- to late 1970s. The most important were:
- Grumman F-14A Tomcat interceptor, equipped with AWG-9 long-range radar and up to six AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles. To most of people about to read this, this jet is going to be known from the original movie ‘Top Gun’, from back in 1986. Now, in the movie, you can see USN crews training to fight ‘small and nimble MiGs in close-range air combat’. Official purpose of the F-14 was ‘fleet defence’, and ‘carrier defence’ in particular, though. The Tomcat was — by far and large — the most powerful air warfare system of the 1970s-1990s period (and ‘period’). It was capable of simultaneously tracking up to 24 and simultaneously engaging 6 high-speed targets over a range of up to 160km (once again, advertised ranges are usually entirely different; one should keep in mind that they heavily depended on the AWG-9’s working mode and tactical circumstances, though; thus, I’m talking about something like ‘actually effective envelope’). However, and foremost, the F-14 was not meant to operate alone, but in conjunction with the
- Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne early aircraft: a ‘flying radar’ capable of detecting incoming Tu-22s from as far as 500–600km (depending on their flight altitude, electronic warfare etc.). Above all, the USN decided to centralise all the command-and-control functions into one combat system, to automatise the entire process in order to enable quick reaction and high probability of intercept of even the most problematic targets. Thus came into being the
- Aegis air defence system (also ‘Aegis Combat System’, ACS). Perhaps the most complex (and most expensive) air defence system of the last 40 years, too. Aegis is an advanced command and control system using powerful radars and computers to control the battle, track and guide weapons etc. Initially, Aegis was installed into 27 guided missile cruises of the Ticonderoga-class: starting with around 1983–1986, one of these was always escorting every of USN’s aircraft carriers (meanwhile, Aegis is in service on multiple warship-classes in the USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Spain, and capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, too).
- Finally, at short range, as ‘last ditch defence’, the USN equipped all of its ships with the Mk.15 Phalanx close-in weapons system: essentially, a radar-controlled six-barrel gun with a range of 1,000–1,500m, capable of shooting down (even) hypersonic missiles.
Nowadays, this all is unlikely to mean much: after all, we all have more computing power installed in one of our smartphones than either in the AWG-9 or the original Aegis computers. Thanks to the internet, we communicate with ease, too: the modern day ‘data link’, aka ‘modem’ is the size of average chip. Unsurprisingly, such systems might be considered for ‘self-understanding’.
However, back in the 1970s and 1980s, the F-14 was a ‘small revolution’, but criticised for its ‘excessive cost’; the power of the E-2C was often ridiculed because of its poor performance over the land; the power of the Aegis remained much under-recognized, even if representing a true ‘revolution in air defence’….and nobody cared about something called ‘data-link’…
Actually, what the USN created in this way was a multi-layered, integrated air defence system (IADS) of the kind that was near-impossible to beat. Attacking a CVBG was like peeling an onion: anybody trying to mess around with it would first run into F-14s (provided that opponent survived their AIM-54s), then into the Aegis (and its Standard SAMs), and then into the Phalanx. Connected by data-links, and in conjunction with E-2Cs, a cruiser of Ticonderoga-class could control all the airspace 600km (+) around the CVBG, simultaneously track hundreds of targets, and guide means of defence against them. F-14s could loiter on station 400km (+) away from the carrier, and — thanks to support from the Aegis+E-2C-combo — intercept incoming Tu-22s (well) before these could release their Kh-22. And even if any Kh-22s would’ve been released, Aegis was so powerful, that this single cruiser could take-over the guidance of air-defence-missiles fired by all warships in the CVBG, thus multiplying the number of SAM-rounds it could control. T
hat’s when this became a ‘game of numbers’….
Kompleks-22, Take 2
On average, a Soviet regiment of Tu-22Ks included some 22–27 bombers. If a full regiment would have managed to avoid E-2Cs and F-14s (that alone was a ‘huge if’!), and each bomber released a single Kh-22, the Aegis-controlled air defence system would face 22–27 missiles. A single Ticonderoga-class cruiser was armed with 68 RIM-66 Standard-2 SAMs. Enough to target every by at least two SAMs, if not more. Moreover, Aegis-equipped cruisers could control Standard SAMs fired by other ships in the CVBG, too. Means: every single Kh-22 was likely to be countered by three, four or more SAMs. It became unlikely for the weapon to actually penetrate the defences of a CVBG.
Therefore, already during the 1960s — while the USN was still busy developing all the above-mentioned weapons — the Soviets initiated the development of an upgraded variant of the Kh-22. Atop of that, Tupolev convinced the GenStab to finance an entirely new medium bomber to carry the new missile: this was then ‘masqueraded’ as an ‘improved version’ of the Tu-22 and designated the Tu-22M (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘Backfire’; and yes, Marshal Dmitriy Fyodorovich Ustinov’s insistence on ‘conventional build-up, atop of the nuclear build-up’ was what resulted in the financial collapse of the USSR, no ‘Ronald Reagan’ or whoever else).
Except for entirely new aerodynamics (and thus: ‘new look’, including so-called ‘swing wings’), primary difference between the Tu-22 and the Tu-22M was that the new bomber was capable of loading no less than three Kh-22s. One under each wing, and one under the centerline (like on illustration above).
Sure, the Tu-22M couldn’t get much further than about 1,500km while that heavily loaded, but that was perfectly OK. After all, the combo was meant as defence against CVBG-attacks on so-called ‘bastions’: areas of large concentrations of major Soviet military bases, like the Kola- or Kamchatka Peninsulas. Important was the fire-power: a single regiment could now deploy up to 66–81 Kh-22s against the CVBG — and that was a number either equal, or higher than the number of SM-2s loaded into every of the first five Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
Moreover, the Kh-22 was upgraded to a new standard: Kh-22M. This not only had its range stretched to more than 500km, but included a guidance system supposed to guide it at hypersonic speeds above the engagement envelope of such US weapons like AIM-54 and RIM-66, and then to lead it into a terminal dive at 80 degrees and something like Mach 4–5 (+). I.e. it was meant to avoid and then overpower not only the F-14/AWG-9/AIM-54-, but even the Aegis system…. Contrary to the Kh-22, though, the new variant was primarily equipped with a conventional, shaped-charge, 1,000kg heavy warhead, expected to punch holes of 12 metres in diameter in any of USN warships it would hit…
What was left of all of this as of 2022?
….and then the Cold War found its sudden end and nothing of this mattered any more…
Because of this, but especially because of Putin’s ‘rule per shareholding’ — which is automatically-ruining any kind of high-tech innovation and development in Russia under his rule — not much is left of the Tu-22/Kh-22 combo of our days. Production of Tu-22M-3s ended in 1993, and the type was never exported (Belarus and Ukraine have axed their fleets inherited from the USSR already in the 1990s). By the mid-1990s, the older Tu-22s were all withdrawn from service. All the early sub-variants of the Tu-22M followed in fashion. At one point in time (can’t recall the date), even all the units of the Russian Naval Aviation equipped with Tu-22M-3s and staffed by crews trained to operate against USN’s CVBGs, were ‘axed’, and the — massively downsized — fleet of surviving bombers consolidated within the VKS. No doubt, there was a talk about an upgrade of some 250+ Tu-22M-3s to the Tu-22M-4 standard, back in the 1990s, but the sole prototype ended in some museum. Yes, all were meanwhile capable of deploying the Kh-15 (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘AS-15 Kickback’) hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles, and, more recently, there was talk about all being adapted to deploy Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. As far as I know, none was ever seen actually carrying these, not to talk about deploying them ‘at least for testing purposes or during exercises’….
As of the mid-2010s, only some 60 Tu-22M-3s were still in service: on average less than 30 were fully operational. Yes, sure, they saw their share of ‘combat’ over Georgia (2008; where one was shot down), and then over Syria, in 2015–2016, but only while deploying conventional bombs.
Years ago… I do not recall when and where any more, I think to have read that about 4,000 Kh-22s were manufactured in total: not sure even to recall the correct number, but I’m sure that the mass was axed ages ago, too — and this despite some talk about their upgrade to the Kh-32 standard, several years ago. No surprise: that IRFNA is highly corrosive and extremely dangerous for health. Really: nothing with which one might want to mess around in peace-time. Foremost, there was simply no use of them in sight: frankly (as always), had anybody, say, only 2–4 years ago told me I’m going to see a combat deployment of the Kh-22 in the time of my life — I would’ve answered something like, ‘yes, sure, in another of Hollywood’s blockbusters, made by a producer on a truckload of dope…’
Hand on heart: who would’ve ever thought about some ex-KGB-apparatchik suffering from megalomania due to stealing hundreds of billions, and imagining himself as the greatest strategist of the 21st Century, driving the VKS into exhausting its stocks of modern cruise missiles to the level where the latter has to reach back upon remaining stocks of 40-years-old Kh-22s, renowned as dangerous for their users, as any kind of enemy air defences…?
…even more so because, as of 2019, it was uncertain if even the (much more advanced, and significantly smaller, even if still based on a similar aerodynamic configuration) Kh-15 was still in operational service…
OK so, why Kh-22s now?
During the 1980s, it — gradually — dawned upon the super-brains of the Soviet GenStab that even with the Tu-22M-3 and Kh-22M in service, it could not outfight a single CVBG of the US Navy with a single regiment of bombers. Then it turned out that they couldn’t do so even with a full division of two or three regiments. Ultimately, they concluded that even two divisions might not be enough… yes, not even if their Kh-22Ms would all be equipped with nuclear warheads — all because of the multi-layered air defence system, centered on the Aegis, in widespread service with the USN.
Ukraine of 2022 does have a multi-layered, integrated air defence system (IADS). Nominally at least, this is consisting of early warning radars (and intelligence-gathering platforms), of S-300 long-range-, Buk medium-range-, Osa-AKM (SA-8) and Strela-10 (SA-13) short-range SAM-systems. However, the area this IADS has to cover is much too large for available means: the number of operational SAM-systems is much too low, and the number of potential targets for Russian Kh-22 much too high for this IADS to be at least ‘highly efficient’. For all practical purposes, Ukraine would need many more S-300s, Buks, and other SAM-systems to establish an IADS covering all of its major urban centers, major military installations, and other facilities of strategic importance — plus all its troops along a 1,000-kilometres-long frontline. Right now, it has no means to do so.
However, Ukraine’s IADS is still very good at covering specific parts of the country’s airspace. Thus, almost as soon as the Russians ‘returned to service’ their Tu-22M-3s armed with Kh-22Ms, and began deploying them for attacks on Ukraine, back in mid-May 2022, Ukrainians also claimed several of missiles as shot down.
Precisely that is one of reasons why, early on 25 June, those (at least) six Russian Tu-22M-3s came in via the airspace of Belarus: in order to ‘outflank’ the Ukrainian IADS — which, in days before that, was becoming ever more efficient in intercepting Kh-22s and (Su-34-released) Kh-59 missiles used by the Russians to strike targets in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Quite unsurprisingly then, early on 25 June, the Ukrainians claimed to have shot down 12 of incoming missiles (no idea if all of these were Kh-22s or something else, though). And, word is that ‘quite a few’ of Kh-22Ms released by Tu-22M-3s on 25 June have malfunctioned upon launch (…. what a surprise considering their age…).
Thus, it’s not like the Ukrainians are entirely defenceless against this kind of a threat. They can defend some areas — say: Kyiv — at least reasonably well, but not everything of importance.
Devil is in Detail…
Except for having ‘quite a few holes’ in the coverage, the point about the Ukrainian IADS is that it cannot defend Ukraine against all sorts of threats, even less so at once.
This is why on the morning of Jun. 25 the Russians came in not only with Tu-22M-3/Kh-22Ms, but also with Iskanders and Oniks missiles: to ‘overpower’ the Ukrainian IADS with a large number of very different missiles. The reason is that, for example, there are multiple sub-variants of the S-300 SAM-system operated by Ukraine, some better in anti-ballistic missile defence, other in anti-cruise missile defence. Similar is valid for Ukrainian Buks.
Of course, a ‘bonus point’ (from Putin’s point of view) was to re-strike targets in western Ukraine, not attacked ever since the VKS and the Russian Navy — on insistence of the greatest strategic genius of our times — run their stocks of (subsonic) cruise missiles dry, about a month ago.
This in turn is imposing the question: why then use something as imprecise as Kh-22s, at all?
Arguably, except for their range, the answer is that, because no Kh-15s are left in service, the Keystone Cops in Moscow have nothing better left in their stocks.
An alternative reply is: well, perhaps some of ‘Kh-22s’ were actually Kh-15s (re-armed with conventional warheads, of course)? After all, their aerodynamic body and flight performances are at least similar.
That said, the Russians have a major problem just in finding shipments of NATO-supplied weapons ‘flowing’ through Ukraine of the last few months. Not to talk about tracking these. For many in Ukraine or the West, this is ‘oh my, big surprise’: for me, not so much, because back in 2015–2017 the Russian military intel was, regularly, ‘blind and deaf’ regarding developments just 30–50km behind the frontlines of the Syrian War.
I do not think they got that much better, all the years after. Thanks to Putin’s foresight and wisdom (the latter only outmatched by one person: certain Donald…something….), the Russian intelligence services simply have no means to do so in real time. The money necessary to develop and deploy enough reconnaissance satellites, stealth UAVs capable of loitering over the target zone for dozens of hours, and precision weapons — all ended on ‘his-’, and bank accounts of other of his ‘shareholders’. That’s what happens when one has a corrupt jerk in power.
Thus, the Russians can’t even find, not to talk about hit such, relatively large targets like trains underway through western and central Ukraine. That’s why they’ve wasted so many of their last few Kh-101s and Kh-555s on striking such ‘fix’ elements of the Ukrainian railway network like transformer stations, or ‘suspected weapons storage sites’, instead. Under such circumstances, deploying 40(+)-years-old Kh-22Ms to strike ‘big targets deep in Ukraine’ was about all they could do at this moment in time. Weapons like Kh-22M at least have a serious chance of hitting ‘something’ — be that a tall building, a big factory hall, even a bridge, and, in Putin’s ‘books’, that’s ‘perfectly OK’….and such an impressive fire-power demonstration for all the clueless Western governments, wasn’t it….?
Of course, one cannot exclude the possibility of Russians finding the way to manufacture new cruise missiles like Kh-101 and/or Kh-555 without Western chips and processors, and then returning to the practice of deploying these, as soon as they have a useful stock on hand. Sorry: got no crystal ball and thus can’t say.
Can and/or should NATO deliver better SAM-Systems to Ukraine?
I’ll start this one from the rear. ‘Should’ — certainly yes. If for no other reason, then to prevent Russian missiles from mass-murdering Ukrainian civilians. Even if the Russians would really care about sparing innocent lives as much as some of them still can’t stop claiming they do (others are meanwhile sincere enough to call things like, ‘kill them, and kill them more’), their intelligence, their targeting, and their weaponry are much too imprecise but to avoid ‘collateral damage’.
‘Can’ — is a different question, the answer to which is currently depending upon things called such names like ‘appeasement’, ‘political will’, ‘priorities’, and ‘industrial capacity’ — all of which can actually be summarised under: ‘understanding of what’s at stake’.
Right now, the mass of Western governments lacks the understanding for what’s at stake, has no idea about how to solve even part of all the problems on hand, and it — 10000% certainly — never had the sufficient foresight (otherwise it would never let Putin get as far as he’s getting, first and foremost). Therefore, it cannot come to such conclusions like, ‘if one helps Ukraine defend itself, that’s serving Western defence purposes even better than re-arming own armed forces — which are entirely unlikely to do more than spend the next summer and then winter sitting and doing nothing while defending Baltic States, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Rumania and Bulgaria…’.
Another of issues (indeed: a consequence of the above-mentioned) is that right now NATO remains preoccupied with the issue of re-arming its own armed forces. Ironically, alone this idea — that with re-arming own armed forces — is hampered by the issue named ‘industrial capacity’ — because the latter is low. After 30 years of disarmament, NATO is ill-positioned to launch anything like ‘mass production’ of major weapons systems. Especially not ‘over the night’. Actually: not even ‘this year’. For example, see the inability of the German industry to roll out more than two IRIS-T SAM-systems for Ukraine this year (OK…. make it four — provided it might scratch all the necessary pieces together): if you think the USA could turn out new PAC-2/3 Patriot or THAAD SAM-systems at any significantly higher rates: sorry, that’s wrong.
…and even if: the PAC-2/3 lack the range to engage any Tu-22M-3s before these could release Kh-22Ms. At most, they can engage the latter only once these come closer.
Finally, many of Western governments remain insistent on continuing to appease Putin (or giving in to his blackmails; name it the way you prefer). Such characters are wholeheartedly supported by fans of the idea that Putin = Russia and Russia = USSR, and USSR is good…. — and all of them are quick at browning their underwear alone at the thought of provision of something as ‘advanced and as powerful’ as, say, PAC-2 or PAC-3 Patriot SAMs to Ukraine. If nothing else, and following the obligatory guess that ‘this is going to provoke a nuclear war’, they’re going to argument that it would take too long for Ukrainians to learn how to use them… even if (the ‘devil in me’ can’t leave this one out): actually, this would be a much more ‘defensive weapon’ by its sheer nature, than, say, the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launchers that have already been delivered…
Bottom line: nope, right now, I do not see anybody delivering ‘such stuff’ — like Patriot SAMs — to Kyiv. Or if, nowhere near in sufficient numbers as to make the difference.
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Photo credit: U.S. Navy